Amgalant graphics

These gorgeous Mongolian graphics with Amgalant quotes are made by my sister Julie Bozza.

graphic - Our children

graphic - He only knows a single thing

graphic - Divine guidance

graphic - None of his sonsgraphic - The sun is a flower

This last is a line from a poem found in the Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, edited by Robert Irwin. Jamuqa, who knows a bit about battle poetry (joke), appreciated it in his last hours.

If you had only been with us at the
wedding-like battle, when red saffron blood was the perfume of heroes.

The sun was a flower, the evening, crescent
moons, the arrows were rain, and the swords were lightning flashes.

(translation by Bellamy and Steiner, Ibn Said al-Maghribi’s Book of the Banners of the Champions. In the Penguin, p. 301)

Images

The sun is a flower: ‘Poppies in the sun’ by jiimms
http://www.freeimages.com/photo/poppies-1331125

None of his sons were perfect: ‘Mongolian little girl’ by Vadas Robert
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:XMongolPeople4.jpg

Divine guidance: unknown photographer
https://twitter.com/Mongolia976/status/563922205772218368

He only knows: ‘Terelj skies’ by P Lechien
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Terelj_skies.jpg

Our children: ‘Mongolian Youth’ by Erhart Christoph
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mongolian_Youth.jpg

Slumming in historical fiction

or, Politics? What Politics?

Yesterday I read a Tim Kreider piece at the New Yorker blog: Our Greatest Political Novelist? In it he argues that a science fiction writer might count as our greatest political novelist, and boo-hiss to genre snobbery. His chosen one is Kim Stanley Robinson. As an old science fiction lover, I thought his first few paragraphs simply the statement of an overdue truth: of course we’re important. Then he comes to discuss Kim Stanley Robinson’s foray into prehistoric fiction – which he introduces thus:

“Robinson’s new book, Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age, is what you might technically call historical fiction, though it’s not the kind with a buff Byronic groomsman clutching a swoony supermodel heiress on the cover.”

F***. As I tweeted at the time. Genre snobbery? From the intellectual heights of his science fiction, Robinson slums in historical… Tim Kreider, genre champion, trots out the worst of the stereotypes.

Are the charges true?

Is HF a tame genre that doesn’t throw out experiments? Does it fail to do any analytic task, when it talks about history? Why are we lampooned, by a genre champion?

What I hear from listening is that historical novelists, when they think about their job with history, think of accuracy. Accuracy first, and they can obsess over accuracy. How about analysis? You have to think about your history too, but it’s fair to say analysis is less discussed. These are the two parts of the job with history, and it’s the analysis one that matters and that makes for fiction that aspires to be exciting (in an intellectual sense) or important.

Science fiction isn’t afraid to use these terms of itself, in the face of a sceptical world. They know they’re writing important stuff, stuff on the edge of the intellect, and they can knock your brains out of your head. They know this, they are self-aware, whether or not the world sneers at “that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine.” (quote Kreider)

Why can’t I stand up and confidently say these things of historical fiction? Why does the world still sneer? Why does Tim Kreider sneer?

Perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson himself wasn’t aware of the potentials of historical fiction, since he’s put out a tamer effort with not enough analysis – going from Kreider’s criticisms. (Or he just wanted a rest. Because he has been to history in The Years of Rice and Salt). – I can see an argument that the experimental stuff is happening in historical fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay is said to think about history, although I was let down by his Under Heaven. Or KSR in the alt-history just mentioned.

Kreider seems a groovy dude, but his attitude to historical fiction is out of the dark ages, and I see our reputation is as low as ever, at least in his quarter. And I do care what he says, as a cultural commentator, and as a champion of science fiction – the thinking person’s genre.

Why isn’t historical fiction a thinking person’s genre? The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. My first instincts, that I Twittered out, were, ‘It’s not his fault, either. It’s ours.’ I was in a slump with historical fiction yesterday, anyway, and had turned for strong liquor to 70s scifi in the person of James Tiptree Jr (intellectual giant). So this New Yorker post struck a chord. We’re not as well-off for thinking books as science fiction. I grew up on Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Where were historical’s dangerous visions? Where are they now?

Intellectual work can be done by historical fiction. This statement of Tim Kreider’s is rich to my ears in unintended irony: “Science fiction is an inherently political genre… It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding) in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…”

What the eff is historical fiction for, then?

Historical fiction sees, or should see, our present as just the latest slice or stage of history, as subject to change as that which went before. It studies, or should study change.

Yet I bet he’d call us an inherently conservative genre. Because I’m almost fit to do that myself.

I worry about the time we spend with kings and queens. It’s nice when we have revolting peasants instead, but notoriously, they don’t look so glamorous on the bestseller shelves. The least-thinking sort of historical fiction lets every woman live a queen’s life and every man revert to a Viking. – And do we need an Anti-James Tiptree Jr Award in hf, as the least gender-questioning of genres? Yes, we do.

Criticise your king. If you wouldn’t vote for a king today, but you’re writing about one in the past, don’t leave your politics at the door. Think about them. There’s a crowd of what I can call wish-fulfilment hf, where we sink indulgently into history because it was more vivid, more bloody, more glamorous – that’s our pulp, like sf has a pulp, and most of us are fond of pulp. Right now I’m only here to talk about the intellectual end. There is one, even if Tim Kreider hasn’t caught up with the fact.

Every page we write has consequences. As he points out, prehistoric fiction has to take a stand on rather major and contentious issues: human violence, human sexuality. I’m here to tell him, if he doesn’t know, historical fiction does too. My subject’s steppe-and-settled, and I meet major issues. Write a page, it’s political.

On that I agree with Julian Rathbone. In an interview he said this:

“We should acknowledge that we experience our sources through modern sensibilities. All historical novels, consciously or unconsciously, present a point of view and I think it is better if the writer knows what he is doing, rather than not. It’s a more honest approach. If you think of historical fiction in the past, Walter Scott for instance, they definitely had contemporary relevance – the Whig view of history for instance. When you get into modern popular historical fiction, on an overt conscious level that disappears – but however unconsciously, the writer’s ideology or agenda are still there.” — the interview online

They are still there. Politics sticks out a mile. No doubt a great artist can disguise it… but these are the Rathbone Rules –
1) Your politics comes out in your work, no matter what.
2) It’s dangerous to have unconscious politics in your fiction. Better have them conscious.

I know how present politics is, I know I face political questions, big ones, and I don’t want to dodge them, I want to tackle them head-on. Leave my politics at the door? leave my beliefs & principles? No way, or else what’s the use to even look at the past? I’m with Julian Rathbone on this. As for Tim Kreider, to write about the past can be as political as to write about the future. Inherently political, even inherently liberal, “in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…” That is HF’s job.

Research through enemy eyes

Attila ceiling _Delacroix_You cannot research through enemy eyes. Self-evident? I don’t know…

I’m resolved to name no names in this post. It isn’t fair to – the problem seems so common. Later I might single out one very famous author, since what I have to say can’t leave a scratch on him. I think I need one example.

What I have to say is self-explanatory, and self-evident too, and yet the urge to write this post has grown upon me, as I see what I think are examples of this one-sidedness in historical fiction. Books that are one-eyed on a conflict of the past.

You’re writing about a people in the past. When you come to write about that people’s enemies, you can’t take your people’s view of them as the truth. You have to understand your people’s impressions of them as the usual half-truths, lies and distortions in circulation about a foreign, hostile culture.

Further, you can’t read only the history books focused on your people – in order to research that enemy people. Why can’t you do this? Let me quote Thomas Barfield on the case of China:

“Scholars who devoted their lives to exploring the history of imperial China, for example, so immersed themselves in the classical literature of that culture that they often unconsciously absorbed and accepted its values and worldview. Careful and critical about interpretations within the Chinese cultural sphere, when they wrote of those other people, ‘barbarians’, who threatened their civilization, it was usually from the Chinese perspective, with all the sympathy of a report by court scholars recounting the reception of a smelly envoy from the steppe come to insult the empire with an outrageous demand.”
[The Perilous Frontier, p. 4]

This is an acknowledged problem in Chinese scholarship – Barfield puts nicely what I’ve seen said a number of times. My interests are with China’s northern neighbours, where the problem – one-sided history, one-sided historical fiction – I’m convinced, is encountered at its worst. I think other histories haven’t had the problem as acutely as the China case (or else I just feel sorry for myself and my area of history). It’s an inevitable problem. These societies were so alien to one another they were in hostilities for thousands of years – nobody’s likely to have an equal interest in them both. China aficionados won’t love the steppe, which is so different. Steppe freaks – like me – won’t feel at home in China.

I face this problem, right now, as my guy goes to China, so I’m aware of it. It’s a big problem, because through my whole life I’ve been drawn to steppe-type cultures, but have not had that innate sympathy for Chinese-style. Can I write about China fairly?

It is more usual for me to see the opposite: China fiction that has a visit from the steppes. And you might imagine that I’m hyper-aware of the unfairness I see. Yes I am. I try to shut up most of the time. I’m letting off steam in this general post of complaint.

Now I’ll drag in my example. It’s Guy Gavriel Kay. In fact he’s safe from criticism because his Under Heaven is historical fantasy. However, what he does, I pretty much see in historical fiction – so he’ll do for my example, and I’m not even bagging him out – because he has the fantasy clause and he’s allowed. How’s that for tact in these matters?

He’s obviously in love with Tang history, to which he pays scrupulous attention, even if he changes names. That’s why it’s a shock to travel beyond the Wall and meet – troglodytes. Troglodytes on the steppe, whom he uses for a Heart-of-Darkness journey into the primitive evils. Like I say, he’s allowed, it’s fantasy. But his Tang China is almost what it was, while at this time on the steppe stood the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uyghur_Khaganate. In which he happens not to have an interest. That’s fine.

It might irritate me… More irritating of course is the syndrome in historical fiction. Wherever you are in the world. You can’t take at face value what your people thought of their enemy. You can’t even trust the historians – not the old-fashioned ones – you can’t have uncritical faith in them, you have to subject the history to discrimination and scepticism, too. It helps if you go to books written about that enemy. Because it’s hard to get away from the skew: have you absorbed skewed history, in your research concentrated on – the enemy of your enemy? You need to learn to recognise the Schafers.

Let’s blame the historian, since novelists depend on historians. Edward H. Schafer is a perfect case of what Barfield described, above: he himself, as an historian, is entirely uncritical as he transmits Chinese views of the Uighurs. The Chinese records insult and scoff at Uighurs – so does he. His book is offensive. It’s also a classic on Tang, and cited by Guy Gavriel Kay. Whereas if Kay were to write historical fiction on Tang – which he isn’t, so never mind – he’d want to read several books upon the Uighurs that give you very different ideas.

Even if they are bit players – your people’s enemies – I believe it’s our duty, as the unprejudiced lot we aspire to be these days, to research them on their own terms, in their own right, and never perpetuate an old prejudice. Amen.

#   #   #

Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757, Blackwell, 1989

Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics, University of California, 1963

Image: Stereotype by Delacroix. Oops, I think he called this ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’. Sorry, Delacroix, I used your steppe art on my 1st book.

nice

 

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

The UB Post on Walker Pearce

Yesterday I got up the gumption to send Jack Weatherford a fan email. Not only didn’t he mind, he took time to answer and even inquire into this site. Proud to have his feet here, I can tell you. Right, I’ve always been the hero-worship type, but his work is inspirational and of enormous use to me, and if my spirits were flagging, daunted by Three ahead and who cares about these subjects in the world? his kindness has given me the spurt I need.

He sent me a story from the UB Post, ‘Expats in UB’ by Allyson Seaborn, on his wife Walker Pearce who has adventured over Mongolia in a wheelchair. Now, I’d seen this… hey, I’m a fan, I keep track. Maybe you haven’t – here’s a link. Follow the link, because these are two wonderful people, loved in Mongolia. As Jack Weatherford is quoted to say in the story, it isn’t the official honours he’s had there that matter most to the both of them, but the daily “care and warmth”.

I hate genre

I haven’t written a post like this because, although I have very decided views (see title of post) I live in woeful, happy ignorance of the industry, the market and other words I do not like.

I like books.

There is a type of book I like most, or go to ahead of others: and I guess they’d have to be called, in the terminology, those that crossover or straddle the literary and genre (neither of which words I use).

Examples are easy. First off, Shakespeare: popular plots, art in the telling. Dostoyevsky’s novels always revolve around a murder. – If he weren’t a crime novelist he wouldn’t be my number one; it’s psych of murderers I got into him for. And things are thought difficult now or abstruse, that were popular in their own age: such as most of the medieval stuff I read.

I’ve been on a quest this year, to seek out high-art historicals and bludgeon my brains with them. When great novelists turn their hand to historical. I want to be there and see what they do – whether I understand it or not.

At a slightly less oxygen-starved altitude of art, I’ve found two or three of my ideal type this year, in historicals. The prize-winner is Robert Polevoi’s Port Royal, which is art about pirates; and Edith Pargeter’s A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury qualifies too. The depth of study of people’s heads – with battles and swordfights.

’Taint just historical I’m interested in; give me science fiction art. I always liked your arty science fiction, and arty fantasy, of course, has hundreds and thousands of years of tradition. The 1st of humanity’s writings were fantasy, weren’t they? and the writing of histfic, as I say elsewhere, is very much older than the writing of history.

I’d better not start on the publishing industry’s encouragement of genre. Mostly because I’m happy in my total pig-ignorance. If I ‘research the market’ – which I don’t do – I get depressed. My local bookstore has two stands for hf, side by side; one’s for girls, one’s for boys; you can tell by the covers, which are as clone-like as possible, and as for the contents – buggered if I want to find out. With a presentation like that.

That’s the sort of historical novelist I do not want to be. That’s why we escape the industry for the free air of indie (or so we hope and dream).

Down with genre. Up with art, high art or lower to give our intellects a rest. But my gods, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, prove there’s no need to throw out your imaginative settings, your excitement. Pirates, of course, had as much subtlety of thought and sensitivity of experience as John Brown who lives at number five and led a dull life, frankly. So – I’m here to tell you – did Mongols. I hate genre books that deny these people their peoplehood. Oh, he’s a pirate, he’ll have three thoughts in his head. Oh, he’s a Viking, he can only fight, f— and f— (hey, I’m bad at crude. Don’t worry, my people swear when they have to). I get dead sick of two of those fs, and the third, too, unless he thinks and feels.

If we must have genre shelves, put Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky on them – where they belong, and widen the concept. Give us Gilgamesh and Homer to take as examples, and not the bestseller lists, that’s like in-breeding or reductionism, I don’t know what, but it’s bad. ‘Genre’ closets, closer and closer, and we hear or know of stifled authors, who have been locked in and lose their art. In the industry, I believe, authors are told to study the bestsellers in their line. How bad an idea is that?

But then, art+industry=a marriage made in hell, and let’s not pretend otherwise, even if we have to live together. Author, know thine enemy; be polite to him if you’re under contractual obligation. I don’t know. I’m an indie who boasts about my ignorance. Perhaps I ought to have stuck to ‘books I like’, but what are blogs for?

Blog love with Liebster

Liebster is a nice little contagion going around blogs. A germ of love (it’s from German liebe, love) for lesser-known blogs – under 300 followers – given from blogger to blogger. When you get one, the idea is to share the love with three to five other worthy blogs. At this rate, of course, there won’t be a blog left. But then no blog ought to go unloved. It’s a nice germ, and the fact there’s a person who chose my blog means a lot to me.

My giver is C.P. Lesley, and here’s her blog: blog.cplesley.com, titled Historical Novelist Tackles the Internet Age. Historian by day, she has written The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, a take on the story, and The Golden Lynx, first of five set in the times of Ivan the Terrible.  Find out about these on her site. We have a common interest in steppe history, and I enjoy her Tatar heroes from the second-mentioned novel.

And now to hand on. This took me a while, because I don’t get out and about much in blog-world – not nearly enough, as I’ve learnt. For when I set out with the task to discover blogs to love, I did. I did discover blogs to love, three of them, and so worthy are they, I won’t search further to make five. This Liebster Award has done wonders for me, in the discovery of blogs.

Now, ignorant as I am in blog-world, I didn’t rudely inquire into what hordes of followers these blogs have, or not. Me, I don’t even have a follow button. But this Liebster Award is a germ, like I say, freed into the world by nobody knows who, and qualifications and protocols… I Googled for them, but obviously to me, follow the spirit and otherwise make up your own. Blogs whom I award: feel free to ignore this whole affair. Or whatever. I’ll notify them as I’m meant to.

The first one I found: mongolianecologyculture.wordpress.com
Titled Mongolian Climate, Ecology & Culture
By fieldworkers in Mongolia who study the environment – with an eye to history. Their latest project is to determine whether a wetter, warmer climate in the 13th century led to the Mongol surge under Chinggis Khaan. It has great info, great images (don’t miss the photographs of ancient Siberian pines), lots of general enlightenment beyond the specific study, natter about Mongolia. Thanks for doing a blog, people.

Next I found the Silk Road Blog of Hans van Roon: mongolschinaandthesilkroad.blogspot.com.au
Titled Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, China and the Silk Road
It’s fantastic, a treasure-house: covers museum exhibitions, alerts you to new books, trawls the archaeological news, directs you to other resources – as rich as the Silk Road. For any person with an interest in these areas.

Thirdly I stumbled on Pamela Toler’s blog:
www.historyinthemargins.com
Titled History in the Margins
This came up in my searches because Pamela has an old post on my guy Genghis, which begins: ‘I want to make it clear right from the beginning that I think Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes have gotten a bum rap in the annals of history…’ and goes on ‘…the man I like to call Genghis the Great…’ Now this is the way to my heart. But the more I delve the more I like the blog, and the mind behind the blog, and the way she talks. Her interests and knowledge are nothing if not far-flung.

That’s it from me. Three very worthy, and again, C.P. Lesley, thanks for the experience.